In just a few short years, The Smith Street Band have cemented their position as one of Australia’s favourites, touring constantly and producing three acclaimed studio albums. The band’s latest release, Throw Me In The River, has received an overwhelmingly positive response from fans and critics, making a top 20 debut in the ARIA Charts. Currently touring nationally in support of the new record – alongside The Front Bottoms and Apologies, I Have None – Smith Street frontman Wil Wagner had a chat with Killyourstereo.com to discuss the new album, having awesome parents, and learning what the ARIA Charts actually are.
Throw Me In The River has been out for a few weeks. I’ve noticed you guys have retweeted some reviews and things like that, so have you been paying attention to what people have been saying about the record?
A little bit, that would be mainly Chris. I try and avoid reviews (laughs), I’m too sensitive. I’m not really the most social media savvy one in the band, but yeah, just from talking to people and sort of seeing stuff with the charts and all that kind of shit happening, it’s been pretty amazing.
Yeah, I don’t think I’ve heard anything bad about it, only really good things.
Oh good. I’m the kind of person who will read a review that’s four and a half stars and be like, “Why the fuck wasn’t it five?!”, I’m the worst, oh I’m so bad (laughs). I’m far too sensitive for that kind of stuff.
A lot of the songs were written on tour, right?
Yeah, yeah. I guess it’s kind of just become normal, having spent so much time on tour. I sort of tend to write wherever I am, I write lyrics and short stories and stuff almost every day, or I try to at least. So there’s always ideas flying around. A lot of the lyrics will come sitting in the van or backstage at a show or something like that, and then as soon as I get the chance to sit down with the guitar for an hour or two, I’ll try and bash them all out. But yeah, it’s just sort of adapting to the way we’ve got to do it now.
And then you recorded the album in a little place called Forrest. Why did you choose that area? Are you familiar with the town or…?
Not so much that town, but that part of the world, like the Upwey Ranges and stuff is a place we’ve been going to for a long time, and everyone’s sort of got a bit of a connection to. So basically the idea was, because everything we do with recording is on such particular, very strict timelines, we sort of wanted to take a bit more time with this record so we could really sort of hone in on stuff. And between Sam Johnson who engineered it, Jeff Rosenstock who produced it, and Fitzy, who plays bass in the band but who’s also an engineer – like he did our first record, that’s sort of how we know him – we figured that we sort of had enough equipment and enough expertise that we could just kind of set up our own little studio. And then we just found this house online basically that seemed perfect. It was just a holiday house basically in this little town. It was all made out of old recycled timber and it sounded really great, and there was really great echo and reverb throughout the house. Like, a lot of the stuff, especially on my voice, a lot of the reverb and stuff you’ll hear on my voice is because we had a mic halfway up the stairs; I was singing in the bathroom facing the mirror, and then we had mics all around the house capturing these little pockets of the sound bouncing around and stuff. So we just tried to make it all sound very natural and use the environment as much as we could, and it just meant that we could spend more time, and it was just so much more relaxing to be recording in a beautiful place in the forest with birds and kangaroos and stuff everywhere, than doing fifteen hour days in the studio in Melbourne.
And what was it like working with Jeff?
It was awesome. He’s one of my best friends and someone who, before I knew him, was – he still is – very much an idol of mine. So yeah, it was amazing to get to work with him. Musically he’s amazing, he’s got a great sense of melody, and he composed a lot of stuff for the record; the strings and pianos and everything like that that you’ll hear, a lot of that’s Jeff. But he’s also just a positive force. He’s such an inspiring and exciting person to be around. A lot of the time in recording, you can get bogged down in trying to get one guitar part right, that I know I can play but I can’t play today for some reason, and you know, you get all angry with yourself, but Jeff just knew exactly what to say and when to say it, which was a really calming presence for us as well, as well as all the stuff he brought musically. But yeah, I think we’ll have him on board for everything we do from now on. He’s fucking amazing.
Like a lot of songwriters, you compare writing to therapy, and you’re known for being really honest with your lyrics. Do you ever write songs that are maybe too personal, that you kind of just want to keep for yourself?
Yeah, whenever I’m writing something, I really try and not think about playing it if that makes sense. Everything I try and make super personal or I try to make the song whatever it kind of needs to be. Because if you’re thinking about people hearing stuff, even if you’re not consciously doing it, I feel like I will censor myself, or there are some lines that make you feel uncomfortable, but then they’re always the lines that people sort of relate to the most, so yeah. I think there’s maybe two songs I’ve written over the last few years that I probably won’t release, but that’s of like hundreds. And then there are songs I’ve written for one other person, that I don’t want to release because it’s only for the person I want to play it to. Yeah, there’s definitely songs I will write just for me, but I don’t know, I feel like at this point, if people are going to start hating me for saying shit about myself, it probably would have happened already (laughs). And I feel like I’ve been pretty honest up until this point, so I’m not too worried about it. A lot of the things I talk about because I have quite a long history of depression and anxiety and all those kinds of things, which comes up a fair bit in the lyrics. But I think that’s really important to talk about, and hopefully me talking about it a bit will help other people in similar situations be a bit more comfortable with themselves.
So do you get fans sharing their experiences with you?
Yeah, that’s the thing that means the most to me out of anything. People coming up and saying something happened, they had a break up or someone got sick or, you know, big things that shape your life, or just people who have similar mental states to me saying they listened to us and it helped them get through that – that’s my favourite thing about being in a band, because I have those bands when it’s really bad I turn to, and it does really sort of help, and knowing that we could do that for even one person is something that I really relate to and it really inspires me. So yeah, that’s pretty much my favourite thing about being in a band, is knowing that even if it’s a very minuscule effect, that we can help some people with some hard shit.
Do you think we’ll be hearing another solo record from you in the near future?
I’ve got one written. It’s just sort of time, and the record’s come out on four different labels around the world, so it’s quite hard to coordinate stuff between all that (laughs). So a lot of the time it’s getting permission from everyone, and someone’s got something happening in February so they don’t want to do it then, so then everything gets shuffled around a bit. But it’ll definitely happen; it’s more a case of how I’m going to do it. I’ve sort of been thinking about maybe trying to take a bit more time on a solo record in the middle of the year, or maybe even do a really slow Smith Street record. I don’t know, we’re going to try and do some different stuff next time we record, so yeah, there’s a few ideas going around. I feel like I’ve written the next Smith Street record as well, so I’d love to get back in the studio again tomorrow, but I’ve gotta go do a tour… poor me (laughs).
Speaking of the tour, it’s with The Front Bottoms and Apologies, I Have None… is this the first time you’re doing stuff with Front Bottoms or have you done stuff with them before?
No, I met a couple of them at a festival in Belgium called Groezrock, and we sort of got talking… and basically it just went from there. Basically the first time meeting them was when I woke up and they were all asleep in my lounge room (laughs). They’re really lovely dudes and a really fucking great band, so I’m excited to spend some time and play with them. It’s gonna be awesome.
Your shows pretty much always sell out straightaway here. You’ve been to Europe a few times now, so is it sort of starting to get like that overseas as well?
It is in places, yeah. Like in the UK, it’s always been really, really good for us. Like the first time we went there, we played in London and it was sold out and people were going nuts, and that was really quite amazing. I think we got off the plane that morning and none of us had really been there before, so to play there that night and have a really good reception was nuts. We’ve been to Europe three times in the last year pretty much, so it is definitely starting to pick up there. In Germany and stuff as well, we’ve now got a label putting out stuff over there, so shows there are getting better. So yeah, it’s definitely picking up. It’s really exciting to do stuff here on this scale that none of us ever really thought our band would be on, and it’s really fun but it’s also like we’ve got to be a bit professional or something, for lack of a better word. It’s almost a lot less of a party than it used to be I guess, because it’s a lot more people, like I really don’t want to fuck up when we play. Europe’s just a really nice contrast to that; it’s still really exciting, it’s really fun, but we’re playing in these little clubs that we used to play in here, and it’s a really nice balance I guess. I don’t want to just play here and get too comfortable playing here, it means you’ve got to go and be a band starting out again and prove yourself again, which I personally find really really enjoyable. I love playing to a small room of people who have never heard us before and having them come up excited after the show. That’s a really really fun thing. It kind of gives you a bit of perspective and it makes you appreciate playing these big shows when we get back here.
I know that the band is a full time thing for all of you now. How long has it been that way?
Almost two years I guess now. Pretty much since we started going overseas regularly. It’s sort of hard, like everyone kind of does bits and bobs, like I’ve obviously got my solo stuff, and Chris is a graphic designer – everyone has their own little ways of getting a bit of extra cash on the side. But yeah, we don’t have time, and none of us really want to do anything except this, so it just seemed pointless to be taking time off touring so someone can keep a job and stuff. None of us are really interested in that, so yeah. We’re all pretty broke all the time, but we get to not go to work at call centres (laughs).
You’re with Poison City obviously… you’ve been approached by other labels over the years, but what in particular is it about Poison City that makes you want to stay with them?
Well, I guess the first thing is how much we love Andy and Aaron – Andy especially. I don’t think we’ve ever even thought about it, we’ve never really considered going anywhere else. We talked to a few people before Sunshine, and we’re never dicks to anyone, like if people want to have meetings, we’ll have meetings. But we always pretty much sit down and we’re very happy where we are. I don’t know, it’s so nice, like we know Andy’s family and it’s a little sort of family business. And I love the fact that we’re helping support him, and the amount that he’s given back to the music scene and that kind of thing is just so so huge. So yeah, I love that we’re a part of that. And It still feels cool to me that we’re on Poison City Records (laughs). I know that sounds kind of dumb, but when I was growing up and stuff, like Poison City was the label, they had all the cool bands… they had A Death in the Family, you know… it’s something that I’ve wanted to be a part of forever, and to be any part of it at all is amazing, but to sort of be one of the bigger bands on the label and knowing that we do help Andy sort of pay the mortgage and all that kind of shit, it’s so much nicer than being on a three album deal, and you never get any money, and the money you do get disappears up some arsehole’s nose kinda thing. It’s a lot nicer being part of a family business kind of thing. And also there’s no rules or restrictions on us. A lot of the time with those bigger labels, even though there are definitely many benefits to them, it’s like, “We’ll tell you when the album comes out, we’ll tell you when you’re gonna play shows,” and we’re all so – probably to a fault – obsessed with the band, and we don’t have a manager because we’re all control freaks and too anal about stuff. Like, I just don’t think we could really handle an environment where people were telling us what to do. We just like to do everything all the time.
With your parents being creative themselves, I’m guessing they’ve always been pretty supportive of the band?
Yeah, massively so. They’re amazing, I really couldn’t have hoped for better parents. Mum has like proof read my lyrics, as much as she probably doesn’t enjoy doing that on all of the records (laughs), and yeah, they’re so awesome. I dropped out of uni pretty much as soon as I started going because we got offered a tour and I couldn’t get the time off, and that was quite a big decision, whether I stay in school or is that gonna be what I’m gonna do. And I spoke to my parents about it and they were like, “Well, what do you want to do?”. “I want to be in a band.” And they were like, “Well fuckin’ be in a band.” They’re so understanding, and I think it’s because they’re creative as well. You know, a lot of the time parents will worry about their kids doing creative things – not because they don’t want them to do them, but because there’s like no money in it. It’s not a very good future to set yourself up for – like, none of us are going to get pension from The Smith Street Band, you know what I mean? (laughs) So I think it’s very understandable that parents freak out about stuff like that, but my parents have been so understanding and so supportive, and whenever I have questions they’re the first people I call, and yeah, they’re amazing. I couldn’t have done anything without them.
You’ve achieved a lot with the band in a fairly short period of time. Are there particular things you’re still hoping to do?
Yeah, there are things, but I feel like when we sold out the Tote for the Sunshine & Technology album launch, that was as mental a thing as I ever thought was going to happen to the band (laughs). And it was my dream when we started to play the Corner, not headline or anything, just open for someone, that would have been amazing… and I feel like we’ve gone so far beyond the small expectations of the band that now everything is a complete bonus. But we’re trying to get on some festivals in the UK, like Reading and Leeds and things like that, they’re things that I’d really love to do. And just try and get overseas more. I love playing through Europe, I love playing in Germany. I think those are the things that we’re aiming to do now, to try and build on what we’ve got in Australia overseas, but yeah, I feel like every day something happens that’s like, “Are you fucking serious?”, it’s so exciting. Like the thing with the ARIA Charts, like I didn’t know what an ARIA Chart was, and then someone was like, “You’re on the charts,” and I was like, “Well what are the charts? Explain it to me,” and just that, that’s fucking insane. We never really thought anyone was going to listen to the band when we started, and even now we still make records and it’s like, “Oh, I hope this does as well as the last one did, that’d be awesome.” But for this one to sell thousands of copies, and everyone I’ve spoken to seems to really like it. It’s just like… it’s fucked. It’s really amazing. So yeah, if the band broke up tomorrow, I would be so overwhelmed with what we’ve been able to do, so everything from here is a complete bonus for us. And it means that we’re just going to keep working. We’ve proved to ourselves that if you do fuckin’ quit the rest of your life and really have a go at whatever you’re doing, it’s sort of paid off for us in a way, so I guess it’s been like, sweet, well I guess this is what we’re gonna keep doing now until one of us… falls to pieces kinda thing. We’re just going to keep going.
Just to finish up, I wanted to know what some of your favourite albums of 2014 have been?
Sure, yeah, I was just putting that together. I’m really bad at knowing when stuff came out, I did a Top 10 albums of last year and I think like two of the albums came out that year (laughs). But I fucking love the new Restorations record, that’s incredible. And Pup, a band from Canada, they released their debut album, it’s just called Pup. It’s mind-blowing, I’m possibly still nursing a broken nose from their Pre-Fest set when I was right in the pit. I think it’s broken but I don’t want to go to the doctor about it because then they’ll tell me it is broken and then I’ll just freak out about it.
I think maybe you should…
Nah nah, it’s okay. Don’t tell my mum (laughs). But yeah, their new record is fucking phenomenal, it’s great. Front Bottoms put out an EP this year that’s really good; Apologies, I Have None put out an EP this year that’s really good. The new Bennies EP is really really fucking good… there’s heaps of good stuff. Possibly my album of the year might be Blue Volume by Joelistics, I think the record is incredible. I’m on a song on the record, which is the one that you should skip – which is what I do every time I listen to it (laughs). I listened to it once and was like, “Yep, that’s definitely me, I will not be listening to that anymore.” But yeah, the rest of the record. I’m really proud of that song obviously, but I don’t sit and listen to myself all the time. But it’s so good, he’s fucking awesome. There’s so much good stuff – anything that came out of Poison City Records, I would have listened to a hundred times and loved.
Read our review of ‘Throw Me In the River’ here. Out now via Poison City Records.